(RNS) David Silverman wants you to know he is not a jerk.
As president of American Atheists, the most vocal of the roughly half-dozen U.S.-based nonbeliever groups, it’s just his job to act like one. That’s Silverman on Fox News defending his group’s anti-religious Times Square billboard, unveiling an atheist monument next to a Ten Commandments tablet at a Florida courthouse and explaining why a cross made from the beams of the collapsed World Trade Center does not belong at the publicly funded 9/11 memorial.
His new book, “Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World,” lays out why he wants other atheists to join him in jerkitude — though he uses another four-letter word, one that begins with a “d”:
“Some … people call me a (jerk) because I challenge the absurd notion that religion deserves respect by default. But religion is wrong for demanding respect simply for being, and even more wrong for demanding never to be questioned. Indeed, it is my duty as an American, as an atheist, and as a nice person to do what I can to take religion down — not by force, not by law, but by truth.”
And that truth, he writes, is simple: “all religions are lies, and all believers are victims.”
Silverman, 49, is the latest in what is now a long line of atheists to write major anti-religious manifestos. Some, such as the late Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great,” published in 2007, and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” published in 2006, reached beyond the atheist subculture to become best-sellers. Along with Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” published in 2005, they have become spiritual and intellectual touchstones for many with no religion.
None of these authors would win a nice-guy contest outside the realm of the atheist community — Dawkins is especially well-known for his cranky Twitter feed, and Hitchens was famous for his withering insults. But their books have a role to play.
“These books have had a great effect in promoting atheism,” said Stephen Barr, a professor of physics and astronomy and a Catholic who has written about atheism books. “I think they are responding to a demand.”
And that demand has changed since Madalyn Murray O’Hair, American Atheists’ founder and first president, self-published her first booklet, “Why I Am An Atheist,” in 1966.
“When Madalyn started American Atheists, the country was a very different place,” Silverman said in a telephone interview. “She had to write why there is no God, what is an atheist, that kind of thing. She was people’s first exposure to atheism.”
Silverman, who became president of American Atheists in 2010, says atheists and their books now have to go to another place, a place he calls “firebrand atheism” — a full-frontal assault on religion that attempts not just to explain atheism but to promote it as an alternative — the only alternative.
That’s where “Fighting God” lands. And there is a lot in this book to call “firebrand.”
First, Silverman counts among the ranks of atheists anyone with even niggling doubt about God’s existence — perhaps 87 million Americans, or one-quarter of the U.S. population. But the Pew Research Center puts atheists at 3.1 percent of all Americans, with “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation — at almost 23 percent. Pew has data that shows many of the nones do have a belief in a higher power.
But to Silverman, they are all atheists. “When God becomes a metaphor,” he writes, “you become an atheist.”
Then there’s his take on Jewish atheism, an oxymoron, in his opinion. One cannot disbelieve in God and still be considered a Jew, he writes. “This whole Jewish atheism concept seems merely a defense mechanism for Judaism to protect itself against atheism or conversion,” a means of “inflating its numbers.”
Like many atheist writers before him, he is also outspoken about Islam. “There is no argument that Islam creates many terrorists, subjugates women, and brainwashes children,” he writes. Islam wants special treatment because it is, well, Islam; don’t draw the Prophet Muhammad and don’t criticize him, either. To do that, Silverman writes, is to “cave,” to “start obeying Islamic law, just a little bit.”
But in addition to his anger, Silverman is also optimistic about the future of atheism, especially in America. He believes that atheists can become a voting bloc, that there will be an atheist in the White House, that there will be an “end” to all religion. Why?
One reason is Bernie Sanders. “He is obviously an atheist, and nobody cares because it is not an issue,” he said by phone. “And who is his base? Young people. Why? Could it be because more young people are atheists today, even by the most conservative polls? Atheism is growing and showing itself in the polls right now, and it is only going to grow from here.”
(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS covering atheism, humanism and other forms of freethought. Follow her on Twitter at @kjwinston11.)